BATON ROUGE — Ignoring opposition from Gov. Bobby Jindal, state senators agreed Wednesday to put cost controls on Louisiana’s TOPS free college tuition program.
The Senate voted 27-9 for the bill by Sen. Jack Donahue, R-Mandeville, which has the backing of higher education leaders and the wife of the program’s namesake.
Under the proposal, the TOPS tuition payment rate would be locked in at the 2015-16 level. Rather than the current automatic increases whenever tuition costs rise on college campuses, increases to TOPS payments in the 2016-17 school year and beyond would have to get separate approval from lawmakers.
The measure, heading to the House for debate, could make students and their parents pay more out of pocket for college — if tuition grows and lawmakers don’t boost TOPS payments to cover it.
But Donahue said TOPS, slated to cost $284 million next year, is threatened without ways to limit its growth. He said the program is forecast to cost Louisiana $354 million in 2019.
“I think it’s wonderful that we have the program, and I think we need to be smart enough to do something to make sure that the program continues for our children and our grandchildren,” Donahue said. “If we keep going like we’re going, we won’t be able to afford it.”
Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, opposed the bill, reading comment cards from his constituents who urged him to protect higher education programs.
Jindal described the proposal last week as “breaking the promise we made to Louisiana families” to cover the full cost of tuition if a student reaches the academic requirements for TOPS.
Currently, to get the basic TOPS scholarship that covers all tuition costs at a public college in Louisiana, a graduating high school student must have a 2.5 GPA on core curriculum and a 20 ACT score. The program is slated to cover more than 55,000 students’ tuition next year.
Worries about the cost of TOPS have grown as the state has faced continuing budget shortfalls and as colleges have raised their tuition rates to compensate for cuts to their state financing. Each increase in tuition drives up the cost of TOPS.
But the program is much beloved among middle-class families, who benefit disproportionately from the tuition aid. Also, the program is credited with helping more students get college degrees in a state with low levels of educational attainment.
Senators rejected an amendment from Sen. Rick Gallot, D-Ruston, that would have kept students whose parents earn more than $1 million a year from being eligible for a TOPS award.
“In my mind, if you make over a million dollars a year, you probably can afford to pay for a public university education,” Gallot said.
Donahue said the TOPS awards were based on merit, not income. He opposed the amendment, and it failed in a 25-10 vote.